The International Steam Pages

Italian Railway Heritage and Preservation

James Waite voiced the long standing opinion of many (British) enthusiasts when he stated "Information about preserved steam in Italy has never been easy to obtain." He might have added that the same was true when there was still ream steam on the FS. 

Now Stefan Paolini tries to explain, gives some background to the problems facing would-be railway preservationists in Italy and issues a heart felt plea for help. See also his Regional Guide to Italian Heritage Steam Part 1 which continues with Part 2 and Part 3. He has also provided a list of upcoming steam workings for Autumn 2008 (updated 18th September 2008).

Stefan has since mailed me a rather gloomy March 2009 update.

This is a long long tale, but explains many things. In Italy,  steam preservation started in 1911, when 2 early locomotives from SFAI built in 1862 and 1863 were overhauled to be shown at a fair in Torino. After this fair finished the locomotives were scrapped. Not a good start, eh?

Only in the 1930s some idea of preservation was born, but then came WW2 and everything stopped. After the war we started as a loser nation, so the economy was in a very poor state. Preservation was certainly not a primary interest. In 1954 some railway managers under the then new FS president started a program to collect some rare and old items to built up a national railway museum, in Rome. Many locomotives were gathered in Roma Smistamento depot awaiting a good home. This never came about as the first national museum was in underground rooms in Roma Termini, with absolutely no space for a train. Only the replica of first Italian locomotive (Bayard, replica built in 1939) was admitted to those tiny rooms. All the other items were stored in an open air yard, risking bureaucratic errors when lists of "to be scrapped" locomotives were drawn up - in this way we lost a three-phases electric loco of 1905 for the Sempione tunnel service.

In 1967 a new location was found - Museo Scienza e Tecnica in Milano - and the majority of locomotives went there. However there wasn't room for all of them and many of them were then storedin a disused shed in Merano, near Bolzano. Museo Scienza actually has one whole gallery dedicated to trains, but they are shown in the "old manner", jammed up one next to another, almost unphotographable with no attempt to whet the interest of the visitor and no possibility to operate anything. In other words it was a dead museum from which in 2005 managers in FS tried to prize away the star item: Pacific 691. With the centennial of FS coming it was planned to be overhauled and put in service, but the cost was too high and political control of the museum made it impossible.

All other items were still in Merano shed and not accessible to the public. During these years on Italian railways real steam was declining, with the last steam passenger services stopping in 1976 in Toscana with the one exception of steam on the rack line in Calabria which lasted until 1985. As it worked out, we had many locomotives stored in Italy of relatively recent construction, representatives of all major classes, but of unified design with similar shape and equipment. All the ancient types are now extinct, except those conserved for the museum. So it was not difficult to organize a steam special in the 1970s by railfans or even for any kind of event. The first and most memorable example was in 1977 in Aosta, when 22 steam locos arrived there and ran trains along the valley line, with railfans coming from all over Europe. It was a wonderful start but in the event nothing like it was ever repeated. Even the fares were low, because everything needed was readily available and in good condition already. Thus steam charters on FS started only in the 1970s although some such events had occurred on private lines with the massive closures of the 1960s.

At the same time a few individuals started to collect steam locos and and other old items from from private or industrial railways, because this kind of thing was of no interest to the majority of railfans. Four or five people assembled nice collections, but today all this recovered material is neglected. By and large these are now hidden, derelict or abandoned. It was a great idea to save them, but with no money available the chances of restoring any of all them is minimal.

Things went on in the same way all through the 70's until the constitution of the "Ente FS", a government initiative to stem the ugly deficit of the state owned railway apparatus and separate it from the overall budget while still maintaining total control. Among first decisions of this new Ente was to stop all kind of steam activity at the beginning of 1982. Railfans were shocked and feared this might mean permanently losing any possibility of operating steam. Even among those few few railwaymen who loved their work this was a disaster; in Verona the depot chief gathered 7 steam locomotives and used them on regular freights instead of diesels and of course this had to finish.

We lived two years in limbo, finally the railfans letters, club "alert calls", not to mention public opinion got things changed. Ente FS realised the possibility of making money with this different kind of train. The first sign of a change of heart was the complete overhaul of a 740 class loco. Very slowly steam and tourist operations restarted and again various groups and organisations began hosting special trains or charters. In 1987 the high point of interest was the establishment of a group to find a site for the national railway museum, still represented by the old and small museum in Milano. The site was found in Pietrarsa, near Naples: the last all-steam works of FS, in buildings dating back to the origin of Italian railways, having been erected in 1840 by Borbone Re d'Italia to maintain the first fleet of locomotives coming from the UK. Finally to this museum came all the locos still sleeping in Merano shed, plus other ones from depots all over Italy. They were all overhauled to wonderful condition by some shops of the FS network, some were made serviceable, others just cosmetically restored. The museum was inaugurated in 1989. It has a wonderful ambience, but the location itself is less than perfect. Some longer locomotives don't fit on the short tracks and so are displayed without tenders but worse the entire site is right next to the sea! What a nice place for steel relics to corrode! The good start was soon lost in typical Italian manner. Without any kind of marketing or publicity, the museum was deserted. Families, schools and tourists didn't know it existed and being hidden among houses and buildings, it was difficult to find even for those who knew about it. The museum is connected to the nearby Napoli - Salerno railway line. However since 1989, apart from receiving the exhibits it and taking away some items for asbestos removal it has been used for 2 (yes, just 2) charter trains. Napoli depot was assigned a couple of historic 1924 emus to operate a shuttle service from the station to the museum, but it was never inaugurated and the emus were scrapped in depot after 10 years (gosh!).

Meanwhile all over Italy steam trains were a success in those places where railwaymen and their managers believed in it and were willing to work hard for it. In other regions everything stopped right with the official demise of steam and of course the infrastructure decayed. The steam paradises were Piemonte, Toscana, Veneto and Marche. Railfans still chartered trains, the fares were higher but still affordable. Farewell trips were made even with many other kinds of rolling stock about to be taken out of service while every kind of event was an excuse to host a steam train open to public. But in all the other parts of the nation everything was sleeping (or worse). 

Outside FS there is really only Museo Ferroviario Piemontese with its former FS locomotives and the private Ferrovie Nord Milano line with its historic train of a 1883 Couillet loco plus 4 coaches of the same age. This is the oldest working locomotive in Italy. At the end of the 1980s, EU funding made possible two fantastic projects. Ferrovie della Sardegna and Ferrovie della Calabria were able to  overhaul and start a steam tourist program that brought back to life 9 little steamers, 5 in Sardegna and 4 in Calabria. These jewels worked hard for some years, but now - with economic decline - only 3 are still functioning: 2 in Sardegna and only one - but a rack one! - in Calabria. The same EU funds didn't save another paradise: the Calabrian rack line from Paola to Cosenza, where small 0-6-0s worked until 1985 when the line was closed thanks to a new tunnel line which obviated the need for the rack track. From 1985 to 1992, it lay abandoned. In 1992, a single run along a part of line was tried, but after that the little locomotives were pushed back into Cosenza depot where they remain today rusting away..

In this panorama, railfans were - as usual in Italy - a small minority, divided into many groups each with few members. In some cases they were even in competition with other, a few jealous of others successes. No national coordinating body has ever been created and every attempt to do so has foundered because of conflicting interests or misunderstandings. Only one group has managed to make its own museum collection although it is distributed over several sites, while the only steam locos working outside FS ownership remain those of Museo Piemontese plus some of a private railfan around Arezzo.

In the late 1990s FS enforced a big increase in the charges for special trains and this explains the decrease in steam charters organized by railfan groups. We could rely only on those hosted by public authorities or in the case of fairs or other special events. We could also rely on a "charter division" inside FS, using several kinds of ancient electric trains (Settebello, Arlecchino, ETR.220s) for tourism purposes. In those years was born the first tourist line in Italy (yes, amazingly only in 1995!): the 10km line from Palazzolo to Paratico-Sarnico in Lombardia. It was a great success; a group of railfans fought for years against laws, bureaucracy and even the FS to start it. And it went very well! After a short period, passenger numbers grew and grew and today - 13 years later - the Ferrovia del Basso Sebino is a complete success. At first, it used ordinary dmus leased from FS, then steam trains on some days, then historic dmus and steam trains and so it continues today. After this example, others followed. The other great success (and second tourist line) was in Toscana, along the Monte Antico-Asciano line, near Siena. Here too, they started with ordinary dmus and later changed to historic dmus and steam trains. Other tried but never got off the ground. I know of 3 other lines which have yet to reopen but where people are still trying.... A great obstacle is the basic philosophy that all infrastructure and rolling stock used must be owned respectively by RFI and FS. Absolutely NO privately owned train can run along these lines. As the track and security on it is in the charge of RFI, every single wheel has to be approved, tested, tested again, certified by RFI, CESIFER, USTIF, Ministero dei Trasporti and every kind of bureaucratic apparatus you can even imagine. Italian law, itself, doesn't recognise the concept of a museum railway so everything with wheels of steel has to be tested to the same standard as a normal FS train. In the same way absolutely NO volunteer can drive a train owned by FS, a private individual or a museum. Volunteers here in Italy can do no more than assist official FS railwaymen to keep the fire in the boiler during the night or check the water, but absolutely no driving. So how can a railfan group or a railway museum operate a railway line? They can't build one, buy one, drive on one, run on one what they want...... The only TWO tourist lines now operating are effectively on loan from FS/RFI to two railfan clubs. In theory, at any time a future manager could close them down and nobody will have the power to challenge the decision....

Things got better in 2001 with the creation of CERS. It's a group of railway engineers, managers, shop workers, etc within FS but permanently assigned to historic trains. Its first act was to check every FS owned steam or other historic item, whether working, plinthed as a monument, stored or in museums. They then organized a program to establish an operating fleet and build it up by making overhauls and acquiring new stock, etc... Officially they depend on the Direzione Regionale Trasporti, the local passenger operators, with a different chief in every region of Italy. Of course, the problem with this kind of structure is that it is totally dependent on FS. If FS sneezes, CERS will definitely catch a cold or worse. If in a particular region there is a chief with no interest or opposed to historic trains, in that region no steam trains will never be planned. So, although CERS started well with many acquisition of new locos, many overhauls of others, etc..., right now the situation has turned very bad. The economic situation of FS (estimated losses of 1 million Euro per DAY!) precludes any further funds for the historic sector. While in recent years there was money to rebuild the Franco Crosti, 2 2-6-2 685s, some 2-6-0 640s, some 2-8-0 740s, many ancient dmus (littorine, from the 1930s), an ETR from the 1930s, some emus from the 1960s and many coaches, today we have no money even to maintain all this let alone add to it. So - for example - the manager of CERS has to decide which locomotives will have to be stored to keep aside some money to overhaul some coaches. The philosophy even here is wrong: no other national railway owns a range of historic stock as wide as FS: DB, SBB, OBB, SNCF all have small numbers of items, controlled by a separate body, in some cases outside the railway itself. In Italy everything is owned, operated and repaired directly by FS, all using full price FS labour with, in just a few cases, the help of volunteers.

The actual divisionalization and privatization of railways is obviously another obstacle. To charter a train means working with 4 or 5 different area offices each with its own drivers, timetable, shunting, other personnel and payment. All with charges that are EQUIVALENT to those paid by any railway operator along the network and unrelated to the marginal cost of the extra operation. For example: an electric trip from Chiasso to Milano and back (a total of 60km) costs something like 4000 Euros. How could a few members of a railfan club cover a price like that? For a trip so short? And what about a longer one? So these days historic trains are for big groups, tourist events, social fairs, parties of foreigners etc.... And all have to fight a major modernization of all the system, preventing many previously possible operations. All over Italy RFI is cutting sidings and disused tracks because of maintenance costs, along many lines - due to tunnels - steam is forbidden, water pipes and turntables have vanished, in fact often no more anything! RFI is also selling any kind of railway area not used or little used, old sheds, depots, entire yards. Also the railway owned sites of Museo di Trieste and Pistoia have been sold to private companies who naturally don't care about trains but about money they can obtain from building and cementing everything.... So now steam is restricted to just a few places, such as Toscana, Lombardia, Veneto, Lazio, Sicilia and Sardegna. In southern and central Italy steam operation is merely a dream.

So, right now, we Italian railfans are really fighting to keep the thing alive, oppressed by the economy and politics, keeping the dream alive against all Italian stereotyping: Italy is the nation of art, statues, (art) museums, Pisa, Roma, Firenze and Venezia, the nation of football (yeah, I know you are also saying "pizza, mandolino, spaghetti, mafia", I know....) and not a nation for technical culture, industrial museums, not a nation for lovers of trains.... We try to keep it alive and from now - that you know the situation - every foreigner's help is very welcome!"

Rob Dickinson